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During the Nazi Occupation of Norway, Humor Was the Secret Weapon

Throwing shade turned out to be a capital offense under the thin-skinned fascists.

Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

One cold morning in April 1940, the streets of Oslo awoke to the sights and sounds of thousands of invading German troops, paving the way for an occupation that would last for the next five years. One of these Nazi officers had the misfortune to pass an elderly gray-haired lady on the street, who responded by remarking on his rudeness and smacking his hat off his head with her cane. After he apologized and fled, she chuckled to herself: “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can; that’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.”

It was one of the first displays of the humor resistance that would accompany the underground papers and military operations against the Nazis until 1945.

The occupation years in Norway were characterized by German-imposed food shortages, press censorship and far-fetched propaganda that rebranded the well-known “heil” salute as an ancient Norwegian tradition dating back to the Vikings. In the face of such cultural theft, the underground press, amounting to around 300 publications and involving as many as 15,000 people, printed materials to combat the propaganda and distributed news from BBC Radio. This was done in collaboration with the exiled government in London, aiding the efforts of Milorg, the resistance group that eventually grew to 40,000 soldiers strong by the end of the war.

Meanwhile on the civilian front, the Norwegians spent their subsequent holidays greeting each other with “Merry Norwegian Christmas” as opposed to the usual “Merry Christmas,” and unified by wearing red stocking caps that served as symbols of their Norwegian identity. 

Displays of such kind were unusual in their particularly defiant attitudes. In comparing the Norwegian jokes to those of Russia and Romania which tended to communicate terror of the oppressors, Kathleen Stokker observes in her book Folklore Fights the Nazis: “The Norwegian material portrays instead the oppressed taking the upper hand, deprecating the occupiers to their faces and refusing to be intimidated or even to alter the slightest details of their lifestyles in deference to German regulations.” As survivors of a two-month long resistance against Nazi invasion—second in timeframe only to the Soviet Union’s efforts—it seems the Norwegians didn’t give up quite so easily even when things looked bleak.

German vehicles arriving in Oslo, May 1940. (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-0762-281-30/Möller/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The Germans did not appreciate the defiance, which they viewed as support for the Russian Red Army, and ended up confiscating any red item of clothing. As Stokker writes, “the police department had trouble finding room for all the confiscated red clothing.” The punchline was obvious: “Their rapidly growing supply of toggery led to jokes about women coming to the police department asking directions to the dress department.”

What the officers did appreciate, however, were all the Aryan women at their mercy. As one SS document states, it was “expressly desirable that the German soldiers conceive as many children as possible with Norwegian women, regardless of whether it is within or outside of the bonds of matrimony.” The now notorious Lebensborn program was a state-sanctioned organization whose aim was to breed as many Aryan children as possible. In Norway the numbers were particularly high, with as many as 12,000 children born to these unions. The rest of the population did not look too kindly on these pairings, as women involved with German officers could get their heads shaved or be branded with swastikas. The hostility was such that even after the war, the children were ostracized and often sent away – one such child fled to Sweden to escape a similar fate, and is now world-renowned as Frida of ABBA. To be sure, many women pursued these affairs on their own, but some were subject to serious consequences if they didn’t oblige the German advances.

The Norwegian Parliament Building under Nazi occupation in May 1941. (Photo: Public Domain)

One expression of this horrible, uncomfortable situation was personal diaries that were circulated among friends, and sometimes even published. A typical entry, like this one by Cecilie Schou-Sorensen, a young woman in Oslo who kept a diary during this time, reads:

“A nurse is walking home in the evening, a German follows her; neither one speaks. He follows her up the stairs, but she manages to squeeze through the door without him. The next day she gets a notice that if she doesn’t apologize to the German, she’ll have to go to jail for three months.”

Such diaries, which contained numerous humorous anecdotes and widely circulated jokes, were also subject to severe punishment for their owners. Following a 1942 decree that announced the death penalty for perpetrators of anti-Nazi sentiment, the diarists resorted to creative ways to hide the books away from middle-of-the-night raids. If discovered, the Germans would have found multiple jokes consistently depicting them as no better than animals, such as the following:

A German officer who has heard about the sassiness of the street urchins in Bergen asks one of them: “Have you seen a car full of monkeys drive past?”

“What’s the deal? Did ya fall off?”

But these sentiments were best reflected in real-life incidents where the Nazi officers became the public objects of ridicule on the city trolleys (trikk), which was the primary mode of transportation for Norwegians and Germans alike from all classes and backgrounds. In this unique setting, a unified “ice front” formed spontaneously against the Nazis — that is, no one wanted sit near them, even if it was the only seat available.

A 1944 notice stating: “Forbidden to stand as long as seats are available.” (Photo: Public Domain)

In response, the Germans again imposed strict punishment, saying that it was “Forbidden to stand as long as seats are available.” But the hostile attitude of the citizens of the stolen country remained. A few months after the invasion, one underground paper wrote, “What the Germans suffer most from here in Norway is the coldness they feel from the people, and their exclusion from contact. Let them feel this chill to their very marrow.”

Even newspaper corrections were repurposed as resistance. As the Nazis imposed press censorship from day one, publications resorted to “innocent typos” to get their message across. When asked to print that the Germans were “superior in men and cannons,” (menn og kanoner) editor Oskar Hasselknippe of Ringerikeblad instead wrote “men and rabbits” (menn og kaniner). Another paper, Norges idrettsblad, made up a news item announcing winners of a ski contest, but the athletes’ initials spelled out the sentence “God damn Hitler.”

An anti-Nazi stamp from 1941 showing Vidkun Quisling, Norwegian politician and German collaborator, with the words ”Quisling’s conduct has brought dishonor and contempt on himself”. These were printed in Britain and released by Royal Air Force aircraft. (Photo: Public Domain)

Such acts did not go entirely unnoticed by the Germans. After using a mocking drawing of Hitler and Quisling on the cover in 1943, Norske Ukeblad was shut down for the remainder of the occupation, though it immediately reprinted the edition upon liberation.

These seemingly harmless jokes and images, especially those of the symbolic trolleys, were significant in boosting morale and presenting a unified front for the Resistance, which wasn’t always in harmony. Neither was the Norwegian population always as strongly resistant towards the Nazis. In fact, Nasjonal Samling, Norway’s fascist party, saw a membership that rose exponentially, counting up to 43,400 in 1943. But this was where humor came to play such an effective role, as it could easily unite people from all segments of society. 

Perhaps it’s no wonder why the Germans took the humor resistance so seriously, as it undermined the very superiority they were desperate to show. Indeed, the Germans may have considered these acts a threat that could significantly weaken their authority in the country, as such civil disobedience was punishable by arrest, while distributors of the underground press were sent to prison camps or even executed. Stokker wrote about the effectiveness of such civil disobedience, stating that “humor served this vital function both by creating an early forum for articulating fundamental resistance principles and by contradicting the prevailing Nazi propaganda.” Nothing sums this up so well as the symbolism of the trolley: “The image of a united trikk- ridership ridiculing the Nazi passenger suggested a consensus of values consistent with the resistance tactic of marshaling Norway’s traditional democratic social ideals against the Nazis’ precept of rule by the elite.”